Strong arguments were made against this suggestion. The intention of the project is not only to include the students in academic aspects of college and university work, but even more importantly to foster true inclusion in the community. How could this be accomplished while the students worked from their separate homes, never or rarely meeting one another face to face? How would such students be encouraged to join clubs and organization, attend sporting events, take part in campus politics, or just “hang out” with friends? Most of the group agreed that these parts of the college experience are as important as the academic work.
I was slow to speak. We had been discussing a potential student who is on the autism spectrum. I have met this person. I know him as someone who likes other people, though not everyone sees that about him. I also know that sitting quietly in one place for an extended period of time, in a group, is not something that is always possible for him. He might prefer to start with an online class, or a hybrid class that meets just a few times during the semester. I wanted to advocate for a broader view of “inclusion” and “community.”
My understanding of community includes the people I talk with through this blog, discussion groups, email lists, individual emails, and yes, even discussion boards for online classes. Not long ago, a hybrid class in which I’m currently enrolled discussed this very topic as part of our mid-term evaluation. This is part of what I posted:
The quality of discussions has been very good, the online format seems to work well for this group. I process written statements better than spoken ones, so I feel that I have a much better understanding of other students' viewpoints than I would in a face to face class. I am getting a much deeper understanding of who people are and what they believe; this is something I'm really enjoying about the course.
I thought about this, and about the similar experiences I’ve had meeting other bloggers and readers of Autism Hub blogs. It was like meeting people I already knew very well, better in some ways than I know the members of my family. Immediate and strong connections seemed to form, but no, not form, they were already there. The face to face time spent with these friends was meaningful because I already really knew them. It takes many years to develop as close a bond to people I haven’t corresponded with in writing. My community is very large, and that is because I write. I won’t accept that this community is less real than the experiences I have with people face to face. Those are a comedy of errors, or perhaps a melodrama of misunderstandings. The real “me” is on this page.
On the way home from the meeting, I thought about the other side of the equation. How can non-autistic people learn to accept our differences and alternate ways of communication if we don’t spend time with them? Doesn’t that need to be at least half of our long term goal? The students in my online class do recognize me as a different kind of thinker, but they don’t have to see me struggle to put a sentence together, or notice that I am wearing a black shirt yet again, or drawing squares constantly in my notebook. They never endure the occasional squawk or chirp or accidental interruption. If they take me more seriously when protected from those differences, does that add up to the sort of acceptance I want for autistic people? Not at all. And that is one reason I have no desire to withdraw all together from society. People need to see diversity up close, in their familiar and comfortable environments. This is how fears are extinguished.